Perhaps the most common reason for seeking assistance is to obtain information.

Compiling it may involve attitude surveys, cost studies, feasibility studies, market surveys, or analyses of the competitive structure of an industry or business. The company may want a consultant’s special expertise or the more accurate, up-to-date information the firm can provide. Or the company may be unable to spare the time and resources to develop the data internally.

Often information is all a client wants. But the information a client needs sometimes differs from what the consultant is asked to furnish. One CEO requested a study of whether each vice president generated enough work to have his own secretary. The people he contacted rejected the project because, they said, he already knew the answer and an expensive study wouldn’t convince the vice presidents anyway.

Later, the partner of the consulting firm said, “I frequently ask: What will you do with the information once you’ve got it? Many clients have never thought about that.” Often the client just needs to make better use of data already available. In any case, no outsider can supply useful findings unless he or she understands why the information is sought and how it will be used. Consultants should also determine what relevant information is already on hand.

Seemingly impertinent questions from both sides should not be cause for offense—they can be highly productive. Moreover, professionals have a responsibility to explore the underlying needs of their clients. They must respond to requests for data in a way that allows them to decipher and address other needs as an accepted part of the engagement’s agenda.